Adult life began to take shape for Mel Callahan after graduating from Sullivan High School in the spring of 1961. He was hired as a printer’s handyman at a local newspaper, doing a variety of jobs from cleaning floors obtaining supplies such as ink. . Having developed an interest in the printing trades, he enrolled in a Linotype training course at the University of Missouri.
But as author Upton Hill wrote, “It is strange, but true, that life’s most important turning points often come at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.”
Callahan said, “After completing the Linotype course, I was hired at the Missouri Baptist Convention Press and moved to Jefferson City,” he said. “While working there, I met Rose Manley, who was a secretary. She and I got married in 1964, and the following year we moved to the Brazito area after buying a small farm.”
As Callahan soon discovered, an unsolicited stint in the U.S. military would give him insight into a unique culture and help him connect with the woman he loved.
The newlywed couple continued to work with the Missouri Baptist Convention until Callahan received a letter in the mail in November 1966, informing him that he was to be drafted into the United States Army.
“I chose to volunteer for the draft because it might give me a bit more choice about what I could do,” he explained. “I wanted to take a course in electrical wiring, but instead they placed me in telephone wiring.”
After basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, he remained at the Missouri post for several weeks to train as a combat lineman in the field. This duty, he said, meant he was essentially an infantryman who carried a rifle with a roll of communications wire strapped to his back.
“If you were lucky enough to be top of the class, you could volunteer to train as a pole setter,” he said. “This training took place in Fort Gordon, Georgia, and I learned how to climb poles to chain telephone lines and do more permanent types of cable installation.”
He again finished at the top of his class and was given the opportunity to attend the antenna school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. During this 10-week course, he and his fellow trainees had to sign a document stating that they were ready to climb poles over 90 feet in height.
“I learned how to maintain and install antennas, but luckily I never had to climb such a high pole,” he said with a smile.
The turning point in his military experience came in July 1967, when he received orders for Pleiku, Vietnam, while several of his fellow antenna specialists received orders for Okinawa.
“When I arrived in Oakland, California for overseas processing, they transferred my orders to Camp Zukeran, Okinawa,” he recalls. “I arrived in Okinawa about a week after the rest of the on-air guys, and it turned out that between the Okinawa nationals and the army personnel, they had enough to fill that section. “
Although he essentially went surplus, Callahan remained in STRATCOM (Strategic Communications) to train in the section that performed fixed station transmitter repair. Many of these transmitters, he recalled, were massive and powered by large tubes that generated enormous levels of heat.
“About 2 and a half years is the time I served in Okinawa,” he said. “My wife was finally allowed to join me. Since passing a government services test, she has been employed in a civil service job on the base.”
He continued: “It was very lucky that she was there because we had just gotten married. There were times when we traveled for free on Space Available (Space A) government flights, visiting Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong. I also learned to scuba dive there, and my wife, who couldn’t swim, took a swimming lesson and even learned to snorkel.”
Reaching the rank of sergeant, he extended his enlistment for a few months and was made supervisor of one of the transmitter repair sections. His tour ended in January 1970, when he received his honorable discharge and returned to Missouri with his wife.
Callahan continued to work for the Missouri Baptist Convention Press for several years but, in 1978, joined the local carpenters union, where he remained until his retirement at age 61.
Maintaining a deep faith, he and his wife became members of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church near Brazito, where Callahan obtained his license to preach. He later discovered witnessing opportunities through his membership in the Christian Motorcyclists Association and is now a pastor of First Baptist Church in St. Elizabeth.
In February 2020, his wife died following a battle with Parkinson’s disease. Callahan said his service in the military was an important crossroads early in his life, as it helped him deepen the relationship with the woman he was steadfastly committed to.
“When I look back, I can kind of see the Lord at work,” he said. “I was supposed to go to Vietnam, but my orders were changed and I was sent to Okinawa. There my wife was able to join me.
“I completed my military enlistment, but most importantly to me, my wife and I found time to travel, get to know each other and grow together in our relationship.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.